“He strictly ordered that no one should know this…”
I am frequently asked why Jesus tried to keep his actions a secret. Don’t I often say in my sermons that we are called to go out and tell the Good News? Doesn’t our baptismal covenant include a promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Jesus Christ? Why is Jesus always contradicting that?
This is called the Messianic Secret, and Biblical scholars don’t all agree about Jesus’ reasons for doing this. My understanding of the purpose for this secrecy has changed—I’d like to believe it has evolved—over the years. I’ll share my thinking on this, but as I said to the Wednesday group, it’s entirely possible that the next time we discuss the question, my answer will be different!
In the gospels, and particularly in the Gospel according to Mark, the people around Jesus, the people paying attention to him—including the disciples—consistently misunderstand him. They jump to the wrong conclusions. Their own assumptions about how God works in this world color their interpretation of his actions. So when Jesus heals people, as he does in today’s reading, he is in danger of being relegated to the category of Wonder Worker. That is not what Jesus wants people to focus on. He doesn’t want them to think of him as some Magic Man who will give them what they want in the moment. He is trying to draw them into an awareness of the Kingdom of God breaking into their lives. He tells the disciples to keep his actions a secret until they can see the big picture. They need to live through not just his life, but his death and resurrection before they really understand what he’s up to. Otherwise, they’ll only see what he does, not why he does it.
There is one point in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar that gets to the heart of this idea. Jesus is trying to move through a crowd and they swarm him:
See my eyes, I can hardly see / See me stand, I can hardly walk
I believe you can make me whole / See his tongue, he can hardly talk
See my skin, I´m a mass of blood / See my legs, I can hardly stand
I believe you can make me well / See my purse, I´m a poor, poor man
Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ? / Won´t you touch, will you heal me, Christ?
Will you kiss, you can cure me, Christ? / Won´t you kiss, won´t you pay me, Christ?
It escalates, getting louder and pushier…even just listening to it I begin to feel this sense of panic for him—they are going to crush them with their demands of him, and they aren’t seeing what he’s actually trying to teach them. There is so much brokenness in the crowd, and everyone wants to be the first to be fixed by Jesus. They don’t much care about the kingdom of God. They just want to survive the world as it is.
But Jesus is not primarily concerned with fixing individuals and maintaining the status quo. Jesus is concerned with revealing the kingdom of God at work.
I have used that phrase, the kingdom of God, a lot lately. I realized this week that perhaps I haven’t really clarified what it means, and I don’t think you will really understand what the healings in this passage actually signify until we do.
The story just prior to this is the story of Jesus calming the storm. As Bishop Lane shared last week, this is not just Jesus taking care of the people in the boat—it is a sign of Jesus’ authority, which comes from God. When I talk about the kingdom of God, I’m not talking about a particular place. Instead I’m talking about the authority of God. The kingdom of God is present any time God’s purposes are revealed and enacted. The kingdom of God is where God’s values are the driving force behind our actions. When we acknowledge God as the ultimate authority in our lives, we are participating in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God forms the community of God. Unfortunately, sometimes the community of God thinks it has the authority to set boundaries, to erect barriers to keep out others. The kingdom of God is constantly pushing against the limitations we try to place on it. The kingdom of God will not be constrained by us—otherwise, it’s not the kingdom of God!
So let’s look at these two stories of healing in today’s Gospel through that lens.
There is a lot going on here—even more than what we see in the story. Jesus has just landed on the shore after a rather scary night crossing the sea. We don’t really know what he planned to do upon landing. Perhaps he was going to do more teaching. Perhaps he was hoping to just disappear for a day or two, to rest and recover. Whatever he might have had on the agenda, I don’t think it was what happened next.
A leader of the synagogue comes to him, falls at his feet, and asks for help. This is huge—think about Jesus’ interactions with the religious leadership so far. They have been contentious challengers to his authority. Now here he is, in a public place, with the local religious authority on his knees at Jesus’ feet, begging for help. And not for himself, but for his “little daughter.” This, too, is loaded with meaning. A girl-child was not particularly an asset; he didn’t need her to be healed to continue his line or to take care of him in his old age. He asked for help for his daughter simply because he loved her. And he was willing to humble himself in public to get that help for her. So Jesus goes with him, and the crowd follows and presses in on him, making it hard for him to move. Without meaning to, they are inhibiting the Kingdom of God, keeping it from being revealed.
Until that one woman reaches out. Now the story becomes even more complex.
She has been bleeding for twelve years. Setting aside the fact that she had to have been incredibly weak and frail, she was ritually unclean. Purity laws demanded that she isolate herself until the bleeding stopped. She was supposed to stay on the margins of society, accept that she is an outcast and a nobody. She was breaking a rule by joining the crowd. She shouldn’t have been touching anyone, let alone the man on his way to heal an important man’s daughter. She was violating a boundary by touching him—that’s part of why she only touches his cloak. He’s on his way to the house of the leader of the synagogue, ostensibly someone who was very concerned with purity laws. When she touches Jesus, the rules say she spread her defilement to him.
It’s no wonder she tries to keep it a secret. You’d think Jesus would be happy with that.
But no, Jesus knows that something has happened. He senses that power has gone out of him, so he stops. I don’t think that could have been as easy as it sounds on paper. There is a great crowd around him, the momentum of that many people could not have been easy to interrupt. If his purpose were simply to heal, he would have just shrugged and moved on.
No, there is something more going on here. The kingdom of God has made an appearance, and his purpose is make the kingdom known. So he stops and asks, “Who touched me?”
I love that practicality of the disciples in that moment. I would have been right there, saying, “What do you mean who touched you? Who hasn’t touched you, for Pete’s sake?!”
Even more, I love the courage of that woman in that moment. She has received her healing. She could have slinked off and remained anonymous. But she steps forward—probably expecting all the consequences of breaking the rules to come crashing down on her. She falls down in front of Jesus and admits everything she did. She touched his cloak in the hopes that it would heal her.
This is magical thinking, seeing Jesus as a Miracle Man. Jesus listens to her story, and then offers her—and the crowd—a different interpretation of it. It wasn’t some supernatural trick that stopped the bleeding. It was the Kingdom of God breaking in, claiming her as just as valued and important as some rich guy’s daughter. God’s authority declaring that there is room in the community of God for her and all like her. This was more than one woman’s body being healed. Jesus is not just some wonder worker who makes it possible for her to return to society by keeping their rules. Jesus is breaking down the barrier that kept her out in the first place.
I have to confess that I have been feeling pretty discouraged by the news over the past few weeks. It has been hard to see signs of God’s kingdom at work in the world right now. I have only focused on the darkness that presses in, and not looked for the light. And so I need to say thank you to all of you right now. Because over the last few weeks, quite a few of you have spontaneously shared with me stories of how you have taken the risk to share your faith with people, to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I know you had no idea that in that moment you were calling me back into the Kingdom as well. So thank you.
The Kingdom of God is still at work. It is still breaking in, still taking root. People are still reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak without really knowing what they’re doing. So continue to share from your abundance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re feeling empty. Trust that God is still at work, and when you see an opportunity to cooperate with God’s activity in this world, be brave enough to join in the crowd and see where Jesus is leading you.